DISSIDENCE.DISSENT AMONG THE URBAN ELITE
ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
COMMON GOALS AND CAUSES
EASTERN AND CENTRAL EUROPE
THE GLASNOST ERA
While the term dissidence refers generally to disagreement with a given viewpoint or center of power, in terms of mid-to late-twentieth-century European history it has also come to refer specifically to a political resistance movement against the socialist state of the Soviet Union and against its satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe. The Soviet origins of this movement are to be found in the period following the death in March 1953 of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who had ruled from the late 1920s with a degree of political control that led to the radical repression of public discourse, and a degree of terror that led to the imprisonment and death of innumerable Soviet citizens. That Stalin appeared to be heading toward renewed abuses of power just before his death gave extra impetus to early post-Stalinist political discontent, which manifested itself particularly in the realm of literature. Individuals such as Vladimir Pomerantsev argued for "sincerity in literature" in the Soviet literary journal Novy Mir (December 1953), while the Village Prose literary movement (including such authors as Fyodor Abramov, Valentin Rasputin, and a little later Alexander Solzhenitsyn) opened a critical discussion of state policies in rural Russia.
Broader stirrings of political discontent soon manifested themselves in the kompanyas, or informal private gatherings, of the urban, educated Soviet elite. Private discussions, lectures, and musical events all provided opportunities for an increasingly complex critical discourse. The emergence among this same group of samizdat, or self-publishing, in the face of rigid state censorship of officially published materials facilitated further dissemination and consolidation among them of ideas and information that, despite the liberalization of the so-called Thaw period under Nikita Khrushchev, still remained untenable as public political discourse. As many sought to understand the meaning of their political system and its history, early samizdat materials included poetry, novels, and memoirs, many of them about the experience of Stalinism. Other samizdat included forbidden or censored materials in politics, literature, the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. Several samizdat journals were founded as well, including the literary journal Syntax, published by Alexander Ginzburg in 1959 and 1960 until he was arrested and imprisoned. Other resistance to the Soviet state in this early period included student demonstrations in 1956 as well as public literary and artistic gatherings in the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
Expansion and consolidation of the dissent movement was triggered in the Soviet Union in 1965 by the trial of two prominent Moscow literary figures who had published work in the West that could not be published in the Soviet Union due to censorship, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. Both men were condemned to substantial terms in prison camps, arousing considerable anger among the kompanyas. Both men while imprisoned began to send back to their Moscow family, friends, and supporters new information about political prisoners they were discovering in the prison camp system; relatively few among the urban educated elite had been aware of the large number of Soviet political prisoners more than a decade after Stalin's death. This information, along with the samizdat publication of former political prisoner Anatoly Marchenko's My Testimony, about his own prison experience, led to a growing awareness of more widespread resistance to the Soviet state, especially among ethnic and religious minorities in the Soviet system; it led as well to increasing solidarity of the urban Russian movement with other dissenters in the Soviet Union.
Prominent among the non-Russian ethnic dissent movements was a growing Ukrainian nationalist movement that was rooted in the revival of Ukrainian cultural life during the late 1950s and the 1960s. The Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) had come under Soviet control only with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939; despite the decimation of their populations as multitudes of ethnic Balts were exported from the region upon the Soviet takeover, they too experienced revivals of national folklore, literature, and art that by the 1960s contributed to growing national self-consciousness and dissent. In the Caucusus, Georgian and Armenian nationalist dissident movements took shape in the 1960s as well. The role of samizdat in the expansion of ethnic self-awareness and growing nationalism among all of these ethnic groups was vital.
Members of other ethnic groups had very specific reasons for resistance. The Crimean Tatars had suffered deportation from their native lands during World War II, as had the Meshki from their territory in southern Georgia; both groups sought the right to return to their lands. Some Soviet Germans, who had suffered persecution since World War II, wished to leave the Soviet Union. Some ethnic Jews, many of whom had experienced severe disenchantment with the Soviet system due to Stalin's virulent anti-Semitism in the last years of his life, also sought the right to leave the Soviet Union. Those seeking religious freedom included Baptist, Pentecostalist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox worshippers. Against the background of the official Soviet policy of atheism, they, like other dissenters, formed networks and produced samizdat for spreading information and building interest and support. Participants in all of the ethnic and religious dissident movements experienced arrest and imprisonment by the threatened and hostile Soviet state.
Central to the growth of solidarity among these greatly varied movements was the expansion of information networks. Perhaps of greatest importance was the publication inside the Soviet Union of the Moscow-based samizdat dissent newsletter Chronicle of Current Events, first published in 1968; the Chronicle' s founders and supporters collected and publicized detailed information about the locations, official crimes, and sentences of political prisoners across the Soviet Union. Also of great importance was the dissident development of ties with Western news correspondents and other Westerners based primarily in the capital city of Moscow who were willing to help the movement by publicizing its cause outside the Soviet Union. Foreign reporting on dissent increased popular and political interest in the topic in the West. Contact with Western journalists had an impact inside the Soviet Union as well, as such U.S.-supported organs as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America beamed previously published or broadcast information about the dissident movement back into the Soviet Union shortly after its dissemination in the West.
Given the variety and complexity of the Soviet dissent movements, it would be difficult to argue for a single ideological purpose among Soviet dissenters. Yet perhaps one reason for the impact of the movement as a whole despite its manifest internal contradictions was the ability of those at the Moscow center of power and communications to articulate goals that could be supported by all or at least most other dissenters. Alexander Esenin-Volpin of Moscow argued that the Soviet Constitution of 1936 guaranteed a wide range of rights that its citizens should band together to defend; this theory helped to give dissenters of all stripes a sense of legal legitimacy as they continued their campaign against the Soviet state through meetings, demonstrations, circulation of letters and petitions, and publication of trial materials. Esenin-Volpinal so demanded wha the called glasnost, or transparency, especially in the trials of dissenters. This argument, going back to imperial Russia in the nineteenth century, held that the state should render its deliberations, decisions, and actions open to public scrutiny. Particularly appealing to the numerous dissenters of the professional class were the arguments of the renowned Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov that progress could best be achieved in the Soviet Union through intellectual and professional freedom and peaceful coexistence with the Western world. Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
Another approach that could be supported by a variety of dissenters and other members of the educated elite as well was a small but vibrant voluntary charity movement to help political prisoners of all sorts, as well as their families, by collecting and redistributing money, food, clothing, reading material, and other urgently needed material goods. This spontaneous movement was eventually largely replaced by a single organization, the Fund for Aid to Political Prisoners. Author Alexander Solzhenitsyn donated all of his substantial Western royalties for his famous prison camp study The Gulag Archipelago to create the fund in 1974. Its first chairman was Alexander Ginzburg. The fund soon became a target of the Soviet secret police (KGB), who sought to damage its reputation for selfless charity by planting forbidden Western currency in the apartment of Alexander Ginzburg. Ginzburg was put on trial and imprisoned for this manufactured crime; the Soviet state targeted later leaders of the fund with similar determination. Among many other activities supporting prisoners, the Fund for Aid to Political Prisoners helped to finance efforts to uncover and publicize Soviet abuses of psychiatry against political prisoners. The information that the Soviet state was punishing Soviet dissidents by imprisoning them in psychiatric hospitals was initially disbelieved by Western psychiatric professionals but ultimately did a great deal to discredit Soviet efforts to repress dissent.
Yet another cause that most participants in the varying Soviet dissent movements could support was that of human rights generally in the Soviet Union. The first human rights association, the Initiative Group to Defend Human Rights in the USSR, was formed in May 1969. A second group, the Committee for Human Rights in the USSR, was founded in 1970. The Helsinki Accords (Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) signed in 1975 legitimized and greatly strengthened the human rights movement in the Soviet Union; this diplomatic agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, the countries of Western Europe, and Turkey, essentially exchanged Western acquiescence to the sphere of Soviet control in Eastern and Central Europe for a Soviet commitment to respect human rights in the territories of the Soviet sphere. In 1976 the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group was established with strong ties to Western human rights networks; other Helsinki Watch groups were formed soon thereafter in Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia, and Armenia. A significant U.S. actor on the Western side was Robert Bernstein, president and CEO of the U.S. publisher Random House and founding chair of Human Rights Watch in 1978. Also in the United States, the Helsinki Commission, or Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was established with nine senators, nine congressional representatives, and one representative each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. Another U.S. figure to support Soviet and Soviet bloc dissenters was President Jimmy Carter, who during his period in office (1977–1981) made human rights a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and who intervened personally on behalf of several individual political prisoners.
The situation of dissenters was different in the so-called Soviet bloc of Eastern and Central Europe to some extent because while Soviet dissidents were struggling against their own political system, those in Eastern and Central Europe were struggling in part against foreign (Soviet) control, as well as against those of their compatriots who had been co-opted by Soviet power to rule in its place. After the Soviet Union had taken control of most of the lands of Eastern and Central Europe following World War II, there had been a series of significant uprisings in that region: in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary and Poland in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Czech revolution of 1968 reached the highest levels of the Czech government and was both deeply threatening to the Soviet authorities and inspiring to dissenters throughout the Soviet sphere. Under the leadership of Alexander Dubček, Czechoslovakia took substantial steps toward a reformed socialist system under the motto "socialism with a human face." Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev responded by invading the country and returning it to what was described as "normalization" under more rigorous Soviet control.
In the period following, dissent took a variety of forms in Eastern Europe. It tended to focus around the networks of intellectual or artistic life, with the distribution of underground printed or typed materials and the establishment of underground "universities," or private seminar series. Religion could also play a significant role, as in the cases of Catholicism in Poland and the Slovak lands of Czechoslovakia, and Protestantism in East Germany. A number of complex and substantial dissenting discourses developed throughout the region, as intellectuals struggled with the questions of whether and how to resist Soviet and other state encroachment on society and on individual liberties. In Poland, the journalist Adam Michnik argued for what he called the "New Evolutionism" (1976). Poles could expect no advantage from radical, violent action, he wrote, as the Soviets would crush them, and dissenting intellectuals could not expect to carry the day themselves, but would need the support of the working class that was so important to the socialist Polish state. Personal commitment to action rather than passivity, to the possible rather than the ideal, to improving one's life and community, were the foundations of his model for resistance.
Czech playwright Václav Havel argued for "living in truth" as a means of resisting the distortions of language and communication that were part and parcel of Soviet political co-optation and control of the Czechoslovak state. Like Michnik, he believed resistance to the state lay in the simple, everyday commitment of individuals to active integrity, articulating this belief most famously in his essay "The Power of the Powerless" (1979). Hungarian intellectual dissent was early influenced by the Budapest school of the Marxist theorist György Lukács, and thus such thinkers as Janos Kis and György Bence originally sought to criticize Hungarian socialism in Marxist materialist terms (Towards an East European Marxism, 1978). Other important materialist critiques of socialism in Hungary included Ivan Szelenyi and György Konrad's Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (1979). In East Germany, the former Communist Party member Rudolph Bahro also argued for Marxist reform, in his book The Alternative (1977).
A major development in active political Eastern European dissent was the formation of a Polish resistance movement that did indeed, as Michnik had recommended, coordinate the energies of intellectuals with those of workers. At the heart of this intellectual-worker alliance were KOR, or the Worker's Defense Committee, established in 1976, and the Solidarity union, led by Lech Wałȩsa and resulting from a vast outbreak of strikes in 1980 that ultimately drew ten million Polish workers. The visit of the Polish Catholic pope John Paul II in 1979 had served as one inspiration for the development of this vast Polish resistance movement, which by 1981 was having a considerable impact on Polish government policies. General Wojciech Jaruzelski's seizure of political power in a coup in December 1981 put a substantial crimp in KOR and Solidarity activities. Whether or not the coup had saved Poland from a Soviet invasion like that of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a topic of intense debate.
Another significant moment in Eastern European dissent took place in Czechoslovakia, where writers and musicians played a role in building toward the formation of a dissident organization established in 1977, Charter 77. The arrest and trial in 1976 of members of the underground rock group Plastic People of the Universe on a variety of charges, including gross indecency and moral offensiveness, inspired an outburst of support from Czech intellectuals. Among their most famous defenders was Václav Havel, who wrote in a widespread underground essay entitled "The Trial" that at a time of such oppression by the state, "there are only two things one can do: gamble everything, or throw in the cards." The "Chartists," as signatories of Charter 77 were called, chose to gamble everything, forming a human rights organization that, like the Helsinki Watch Group of the Soviet Union, demanded the observation of the Helsinki Accords on human rights. The Czechoslovak state took sharp action against Charter 77, but it persisted and gained in membership over the following years.
By the early to mid-1980s, dissent in the Soviet Union suffered considerable depredations as many dissidents were either imprisoned or exiled to the West or internally (such as Andrei Sakharov to the Soviet city of Gorky in 1980), and as internal conflicts among the various movements began to manifest themselves more strongly. The Soviet state's policy of discrediting dissidents as opportunistic, more interested in material gain through exposure to Westerners and Western life than in reforming society, also had an effect. But it was in the Soviet Union that the state leadership began to move toward acceptance of the dissident critique of state control and politicization of individuals and society, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1987 Gorbachev implemented his policy of glasnost in order to open public discourse. He also brought to an end Soviet support for the East European satellite governments, allowing the forces of dissent and revolution to take over in Eastern Europe in 1989 without threat of Soviet invasion. The Soviet Union itself proved incapable of surviving open public discourse as a body politic, as some of the debates that had simmered among the great variety of dissidents surged to the surface of public discourse, along with many other tensions in Soviet society. Above all, ethnic and nationalist discontent, including a growing Russian nationalist movement that involved, among others, such early Village Prose authors as Valentin Rasputin, had an impact, leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a multiethnic empire in 1991.
The impact of Soviet and Soviet bloc dissent on the post-Soviet period has not yet been settled by history. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, two former dissenters, Václav Havel and Lech Wałȩsa, became major political leaders in the 1990s. More broadly, while the dissident emphasis on individual responsibility to speak out and to take action against injustice laid an evident groundwork for post-Soviet discourse on civil society in Central and Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, it will take generations for the ideas and the history of dissenters to work themselves out in the region that bred them.
Alexeyeva, Ludmilla. Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights. Translated by Carol Pearce and John Glad. Middletown, Conn., 1985.
Falk, Barbara J. The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings. Budapest and New York, 2003.
Rubenstein, Joshua. Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights. 2nd ed. Boston, Mass., 1985.